SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887; BERG: String Quartet Op. 3 – Kuss Quartet – Onyx

SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887; BERG: String Quartet Op. 3 – Kuss Quartet – Onyx 4066, 73:35 [Harmonia mundi]  **1/2:

In the Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden,” Schubert contemplated his own end as he suffered the effects of syphillus. But he still cherished plans for future musical projects; that same year, 1824, he informed his friend Leopold Kupelwieser of his intention to “write one more quartet. . .and then prepare my way towards a great symphony.” As it turns out, Schubert began his “great symphony” in C major, now variously numbered 8 or 9, before his final quartet, sketching the symphony in 1825 though completing it after the quartet, which he wrote in a mere ten days’ time in June of 1826.

Like the symphony, it’s one of the longest works of its kind written up to that day—in fact, the notes to this recording suggest it may be the longest string quartet written in the nineteenth century. In character, however, it is very different from the Great C Major Symphony, whose Olympian character allies it more with the marvelous String Quintet in C Major of Schubert’s last year (1828). The grand plan of the symphony and quintet seem to be lacking in the quartet; instead of an organic unity, there seems to be a conscious tendency on Schubert’s part to digress and to compartmentalize his musical thinking while at the same time greatly expanding the units that contain those thoughts. As Michael Stegemann writes in his notes to the recording, “If one considers the 444 bars of the G major Quartet’s opening Allegro molto moderato from the point of view of a Classical first movement in sonata form, it appears to blow apart all conventional, indeed conceivable, dimensions of the form with its ‘process of melodic extension, structural repetition and harmonic meandering, seemingly venturing forth with no end in sight’ (Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen).” The modulations to distant keys, the constant interplay of major and minor, the compulsive use of tremolo figures, and the wide dynamic shifts from ppp to fff all have a tendency to fracture Schubert’s musical argument rather than cement it. Perhaps that’s why, even though the first movement was successfully debuted in the last year of Schubert’s life, the quartet didn’t appear in print until twenty years after his death; musical Vienna wasn’t ready for what Schubert had to say in his final quartet.

Fortunately for us 21st-century music lovers, the works of later Romantics have taught us the patience needed to embrace the “heavenly length” of Schubert’s compositions—and of course the beauties of Schubert’s lyric impulses are all there to savor. I’m afraid that might just be the chief problem with the Berlin-based Kuss Quartet’s performance: the players tend to savor these impulses a bit too much. Tempi in the outer movements are very slow, and rubato is too freely used, as if the players are loath to let go of Schubert’s lovely phrases. But extra emphasis is not needed in this already highly emphatic work. The chief offense comes in the last movement, where the Kuss swoons over the fourth note of Schubert’s first melody, placing a fermata and decrescendo where none appear in the score—and where none are needed, thank you. Unfortunately, this opening phrase recurs a number of times, as it inevitably will in a sonata-allegro movement, and each time the same misguided emphasis is applied. It’s a sad choice on the part of the musicians, but the truth of the matter is that a tauter, more classically rigorous approach to the finale is what’s needed. I hear it in the Emerson Quartet’s performance on DGG, as well as in my favorite, that by Gidon Kremer, Yo-Yo Ma, et al. on Sony. Perhaps the Kuss Quartet has taken Michael Stegemann’s comments about the work too much to heart.

The Kuss seems to be much more attuned to the Berg Quartet Op. 3, where more lavish expressive gestures are not amiss. The work was dedicated to Berg’s fiancée, Helene Nahowski, and reflects the troubled courtship that the two had since their parents were adamantly opposed to their union (which nonetheless came about nine days after the premiere of Opus 3). This work is the first fully atonal one written by the composer, and the harmonic restlessness of the piece seems the perfect expression of the mental and emotional anguish he was suffering at the time.

As I say, the Berg Opus 3 seems much more the Kuss Quartet’s meat. Unfortunately, at less than half the length of the Schubert work, it gets second billing here, and since the Kuss’s Schubert is so far off the mark, I really can’t recommend this disc. A shame, since the unusual pairing has its appeals.

— Lee Passarella

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